Review: Slash, spend, get a head in Lapis X Labyrinth

The latest release from the team behind the Disgaea series, Lapis X Labyrinth is a different sort of game for the studio, but one coated with similar trappings and aesthetics. It’s an action game in which you’ll make timed runs through areas to get loot and defeat enemies, but you’re still managing equipment with effects and maneuvering around a hub world taking the place of a more efficient (but perhaps less evocative) menu system. It’s got meters for special moves, reward-multiplying “fever time” and direction-based attack inputs, but you’re ultimately still equipping a small team of customized units and bringing them to a place to slash at gems and take out specifically-marked bosses.

In the game, you’ll assemble a team of four characters, choosing classes for each, and bring them into a side-view dungeon area to jump around and fight. You can cycle through your characters as you play, and each one you’re not using serves as a stacking head ornament of sorts, assisting with occasional attacks and jumps. It’s a choice, certainly! But it means that you’re not limited to one class’ moves and can essentially bring in all the combat variety you’ll ever need for fighting enemies. Along the way, you’ll be shut into arenas and forced to defeat everything before continuing, so running straight for the exit isn’t always possible. You’ll pick up treasure and loot when you do, and you’ll unlock more and more missions to play.

You can cycle through your characters as you play, and each one you’re not using serves as a stacking head ornament of sorts, assisting with occasional attacks and jumps.

If you’re familiar with the Disgaea team’s aesthetic, you know what to expect here, though the interpretation here is a bit different. Everything here is from one angle, and all the characters have chibi proportions to better accommodate the peculiar head-stacking mechanic that drives the gameplay. The music is… what it is, and the writing and storytelling are nearly nonexistent. You’re here to visit shopkeepers or quest boards and get right back into fighting, with very little reason to dawdle.

It’s clear that the foundations of Lapis X Labyrinth were built on solid (and even occasionally innovative) ideas. Rather than rely on pure chance to find needed loot for your characters, you can choose between options at the end of a run. Instead of always equipping the best possible stuff, you manage what you have to stay below a point threshold and adjust based on the needs of the next challenge. Instead of simply rushing to the end of a level, you’re encouraged to explore and reach certain points to get more rewards while still finishing in time. These are some smart thoughts, and when executed well, make for a compelling game.

Here, though, the execution is less than ideal. The choices you’re given for loot are still limited, controlled and mostly blind, so giving you some agency in the process can actually end up feeling a lot worse during the 98 percent of runs in which you get nothing useful. Raising the equipment limit is easy and actually getting the better items to hit the higher limit is a real grind, so you end up just using the best items you have anyway. Most levels just sort of funnel you in a direction anyway, and the times when you need to loop back around are generally forced too, so it never really feels like you’re making conscious choices about where to go. Also, with the loot thing, the “better rewards” just end up being an extra spin or two on the loot gacha or slightly faster money grinding to buy an upgrade you need.

It can be difficult at times to keep up with what’s going on around you while you play. With the constant “fever time” filling the screen with bonus gems and the challenge of the combat largely coming from the sheer number and variety of foes hitting you at once, the game is often a blur that you try your hardest to button-mash through until you hit the exit or things calm down. Generally, either you get through without any problems at all or you get hit with a flurry of devastating one-hit kills from normal foes that seem to come out of nowhere. It’s this wild swing that makes you feel like your success isn’t so much about your skillful performance.

The game is often a blur that you try your hardest to button-mash through until you hit the exit or things calm down.

There’s some undeniable enjoyment in slashing at a lot of monsters and filling the screen with effects and gems, but Lapis X Labyrinth would be a much better game if it had any sense of pacing. Every task you do takes way too long to accomplish and the levels and enemies are increasingly recycled, making what could have been a swift and painless game into a much more arduous journey. If some of the game’s surrounding elements had turned out to be as engaging as the team had hoped, perhaps this would be less of a problem, but a game with this sort of structure needs more compelling play.

Lapis X Labyrinth has promising systems and concepts, but playing it leads you to feel that it’s less than the sum of its parts. You jump into a run, hit all the things you’re supposed to hit, hope your units don’t get inexplicably killed in one shot and cross your fingers that the loot at the end of the level is enough to help you deal with the stronger enemies in the next one. Then you do it again. Labyrinth, repeat.

Score: 6/10
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: May 28, 2019
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Platform(s): Switch, PS4
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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